Spanish Listening: How to Understand People When They Talk Fast

woman talking fast

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If there was a bane of every Spanish-learner’s existence, it would be this or conjugations.

Understanding people when they speak fast is not only an important skill, but the one area where it seems everyone has no idea what they are doing as far as fixing the problem.

The typical diagnostic for this is just to do more listening practice. And of course, if you aren’t having regular conversations, that’s part of it. But if you are having conversations, more listening isn’t going to help you. It’s treating the symptom, not the disease.

And the disease is threefold.

Tuning Your Ear

It’s interesting that many people think their pronunciation is fine but then complain that they can’t understand people.

I was one of them, and was skeptical that what I’m about to tell you was true until I experienced it for myself.

Perfect pronunciation gets you more than halfway there when it comes to listening comprehension.

It doesn’t really make intuitive sense that your ability to say something correctly impacts your ability to understand something.

In a separate post, I wrote about achieving perfect pronunciation, I mentioned an exercise whereby you record yourself saying specific words and then compare it to native speaker saying the same words. The final part to this exercise is having a teacher point when your pronunciation was actually slightly off, which tunes your ear to Spanish.

Every little mistake and adjustment that you go through when training yourself to perfect pronunciation tunes your ear to the sounds of Spanish.

The process of learning pronunciation gives you the deep understanding of the sounds of Spanish, meaning that you suddenly can understand people so much easier.

If you can’t understand people speaking at a normal pace (not fast), then you definitely need to work here first, as the next two elements won’t help you until you can do that.

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Intellectual to Second Nature

In a separate post, I outlined 10 principles for learning Spanish, and number two on that list was intellectual to second nature.

Essentially, what I meant by this was learning a new concept (e.g. vocab) and using it enough to reinforce it so that eventually, using it becomes second nature. This principle is key to understanding natives when they speak fast.

Assuming you’ve got the sound aspect down, your issue is speed of processing the words, not the speed of processing the sounds.

For instance, would you have any issues understanding “como estás?”, even if it was said really fast? Of course not. You don’t even have to blink, you just answer.

That’s because “como estás” is already second nature for you. You’ve used and heard it enough that there’s no longer any translation going on behind the scenes.

Your problem is that as someone says a sentence, you have to mentally pause to “translate” each word, and your brain can’t do that fast enough to keep up with someone speaking quickly.

Even if each “translation” only takes a split second, you won’t be able to keep up.

When someone is speaking fast (and of course this isn’t an issue at lower speeds), the only way to understand everything as they go is for the words and sentence structures they use to be second nature for you.

Let’s take the sentence “la verdad no puedo, tengo que irme al parque ahorita” (The truth is, I can’t, I have to go to the park in a minute). Someone says this to you while in a rush and it comes out really fast.

Let’s then assume two different situations:

  1. The words “puedo”, “irme”, and “ahorita” aren’t second nature
  2. Only “irme” isn’t second nature

In the first situation, you’re screwed. Even though you know much of the sentence, there is too much that isn’t second nature (meaning you’ll have to take a split second to think about it and understand it), and you’ll probably end up missing the meaning of the entire sentence.

In the second situation, you are only missing one part, and you will be fine. You’ll be able to translate that part in your head and still be able to understand everything else.

The point of these two situations is to show that you don’t necessarily need to know every word by second nature to understand people speaking fast, but if you end up with more than one, maybe two a sentence, you’ll be left behind.

Luckily, the vast majority of speech uses the same things over and over again, so you don’t necessarily need to know every grammar concept and every word to keep up with the vast majority of rapid speech.

At the end of the day, understanding people when they speak fast is just another huge benefit of using speaking to move concepts from knowing them intellectually, to them being second nature.


In English, we don’t talk like we type. Or rather, when saying a full sentence, we usually don’t say each word in the sentence the same way as we would have alone.

For instance, “what are you doing tonight?” is rarely said with each word individually.

No, we slur things together, and you end up with “whadda ya doin’ tonight?”

Those aren’t even the same syllables!

When it comes to understanding super-rapid speech, this is the issue. We know how Spanish sounds and can follow a normal or even moderately fast paced speaker. All of the words the person is saying, we know by second nature. But we still don’t understand them.

Our brains are looking for one thing (syllables in a certain order), and not finding it – because it’s not there.

When people speak really fast, they by necessity end up combining words and dropping syllables, just like we do in English. I’ll refer to these as “slurs” going forward.

I’ll give you an easy example: “de hecho” (in fact) is rarely said with much pause at all in between the words. At a fast pace, “de hecho” suddenly becomes “decho” (remember, the “h” is silent anyways), with a miniscule hiccup in the middle of the “e” sound – if even that.

There are three main ways to solve this issue, and you’ll end up using a combination.


Reggaeton is basically latin rap music.

Like rappers in English, they drop a lot of syllables to get the words out so quickly, which makes them an idle spot to find common ways to slur words together (people will slur things in the same way, just like in English).

People or teachers just telling you.

I just taught you what to expect with “de hecho”, for instance. This is helpful but the issue is there are hundreds of these different slurs, just like in English, so it can only go so far.

Doing it yourself.

And lastly, an unexpected resource: speaking quickly yourself.

If you’ve already nailed your pronunciation and can consistently speak correctly (as far as sounds) at a normal speed, start speaking faster.

Little by little, speak faster with your teacher and Spanish speaking friends. They will understand you just fine – they are natives.

But this exercise of pushing yourself to speak faster will not only improve your accent (it will), but you will end up needing to slur some things together yourself.

And if you have your accent down already, the slurs that you will naturally make yourself are almost always the exact same ones a native would use.

If you do this for long enough, you’ll end up self-discovering and learning a ton of these slurs. This has been by far the most helpful thing personally when it comes to understanding people when they speak fast.

I’ve gradually raised my own speaking speed to the point where, now, if I speak Spanish with some of my non-native friends, they have to ask me to slow down.

How cool would that be?

This post was an excerpt from a 119-page book I wrote about the tactics and strategies I used to learn Spanish fast in my “Spanish in a Month” documentary.

If you want to replicate the success I had, then you can download the entire book, for free, right now.

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Download the expanded guide to read later

This page gives you a great overview of the most important concepts and strategies, but for the full, expanded guide, click the button below:

Download Guide Now!

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